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Primitivism

Primitivism
Paul Gaugin, an influential late 19th-century painter, made this defiant statement in regard to a series of Primitivist paintings he created in the French colony of Tahiti:

The public owes me nothing, since my pictorial oeuvre is but relatively good; but the painters who today profit from this liberty owe me something."1

Thus began an art movement at the fin de siècle in Europe that influenced many artists and keeps fascinating the public to this day. Read on for a definition, characteristics, and more.

Primitivism: A Definition

Primitivism was a trend in Western art, particularly in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, that found inspiration in the people and the traditional arts outside the West. Primitivism was also part of avant-garde art that challenged the mainstream and pushed for innovation. At the same time, Primitivism was also linked to Naïve art.

Naïve Art:

It refers to the type of art that is usually created by an artist who is an amateur and lacks professional training.

On the one hand, this trend idealized folk arts and the people inhabiting places like Africa, the Americas, Australia, and Oceania. European artists believed their inhabitants to be nobler than themselves because non-Europeans were thought to live in harmony with nature. On the other hand, Primitivism relied on negative stereotypes about people outside the West. They were perceived to be closely connected to the Golden Age of the past—a more “primitive” time—because they were believed to be less civilized and exotic. These types of perceptions were part of European colonialism and exploitation.

In addition to Paul Gaugin, Henri Rosseau is also a well-known French Primitivist painter who subscribed to a similar line of thinking. Rosseau's art is considered Naïve because he was self-taught. Another noteworthy example of a self-taught painter is Niko Pirosmani of Georgia. However, even though Pirosmani is often described as a Primitivist, he focused on the local landscape and everyday rural life of his homeland rather than idealizing faraway places. These classification discrepancies point to the difficulties linked to using the term "Primitivism."

Aesthetically, Primitivist painting is quite diverse. Sometimes, this type of painting looks dreamlike and rhythmic with emphasis on bold pops of color, as is the case with the works of Paul Gaugin. In contrast, Pirosmani's paintings look child-like and monochromatic. There are also examples of the direct influence of the indigenous African arts on European artists such as Pablo Picasso.

Primitivism: Characteristics and Background

Primitivism is loosely linked to the idea of a noble savage. This idea goes back to the 17th-18th-century European Enlightenment. The "noble savage" concept idealized humans from the distant past—a Golden Age—because they were closer to nature and uncorrupted by civilization. However, this line of thinking also means that non-Europeans were perceived as uncivilized. For example, French intellectuals like Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that humans are naturally good. However, they gradually get corrupted through civilizing initiatives such as education.

Enlightenment:

An intellectual movement in 17th-18th-century Europe that prioritized reason and challenged powerful institutions like absolute monarchy and the Church.

In other words, those who subscribed to the idea of a noble savage believed in linear civilizational development and a racial or ethnic hierarchy. In this view, the Europeans were believed to be the most civilized and superior humans, albeit somewhat corrupted by the influence of their civilization. Consequently, the non-Europeans were considered inferior, though less corrupted by civilization.

European Colonialism and the Arts of Africa, Australia, Oceania, and the Americas

The Primitivist trend in art was linked to European colonialism and conquest. By the 19th-early 20th centuries, Western colonial powers controlled much of the world outside Europe. For example, the continent of Africa was colonized by Britain, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Belgium. Europeans used their colonies for resources, territorial acquisition, and preferential trade deals to the detriment of the local populations. In some places, like the Belgian Congo, the local population significantly declined due to illness and colonial atrocities.

At this time, Europeans strongly believed in their own superiority and the "primitive" nature of their colonial subjects. For example, the professor of anthropology at Oxford, Edward Tylor, linked indigenous arts with…

…determining the relation of the mental condition of savages to that of civilized man."2

Europeans appropriated numerous indigenous objects, such as masks, statuettes, utensils, and weapons, and brought them over to the Old World. They displayed these objects in ethnographic museums and colonial exhibitions in Amsterdam, London, and Tervuren outside Brussels in the 1880s. As a result, non-European folk art became popular in Western Europe and served as a source of inspiration for some. For example, the iconic Spanish painter Pablo Picasso was drawn to African masks. He used these masks as a source for painting the faces in Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (1907), a famous Cubist painting.

Cubism:

An early 20th-century avant-garde art movement that experimented with fragmentation and geometric arrangements of objects in works of art.

Primitivism: Art

The Primitivist trend in art reflected the dominant late 19th-century-early 20th-century colonialist ideas. Primitivist painters idealized non-Europeans as being free of the corruption of the industrial society because, in their minds, they were less civilized. Primitivism arose along with many other movements and trends after the decline of Impressionism.

Paul Gaugin

Paul Gaugin (1848-1903) was a successful French stockbroker who became a painter. Gaugin did not fit into a single art movement of the time, as he worked in a period following Impressionism.

  • Impressionism was a key art movement in the second half of the 19th century. Impressionist artists, such as Claude Monet, prioritized brush strokes and the use of light. They often depicted landscapes and other subjects from a surprising point of view.

Gaugin formulated his style by blending elements of Symbolism. Symbolism was a late 19th-century art movement in which artists opted for fantasy and their inner world rather than naturalism and objective reality. Gaugin was also a collector of Japanese prints and was influenced by them and other non-European cultures.

Primitivism, Gaugin painting, StudySmarter

Paul Gaugin, The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch, 1892. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

This influence resulted in Gaugin's relocation to the French colony of Tahiti in 1891. Gaugin sought to escape what he believed was the corrupting influence of European civilization. In Tahiti, he created a series of paintings that displayed Primitivist ideas. Some of the best-known works from this time include The Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892) and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897). These paintings look somewhat dreamlike, arising from the subconscious, and anti-naturalistic. They emphasize the use of lines and bold colors. The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch, for example, depicts a nude model reclining on a bed with a fantastical background that includes a mythological spirit.

It should be noted that in addition to European colonial thinking linked to Primitivism, Gaugin, specifically, had multiple teenage mistresses in Tahiti.

Henri Rousseau

Henri Rousseau (1844 - 1910) was a French Primitivist amateur painter who seriously focused on art in his forties. His art is also referred to as Naïve because he lacked formal training. Like Gaugin, Rousseau also idealized foreign places. However, he remained in France his entire life. So he found inspiration by learning about exotic animals and plants in the botanical gardens of Paris. The painter's favorite subjects were the jungle and its inhabitants, as seen in such works as The Snake Charmer (1907) and In a Tropical Forest. Struggle between Tiger and Bull (1908). Despite the simple appearance of his paintings, they were built up from many layers and used bold pops of color.

Primitivism, Henri Rousseau primitivist painting, Study Smarter

Henri Rousseau, In a Tropical Forest. Struggle between Tiger and Bull, 1908. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Niko Pirosmani

Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918) was also a painter whose work has been classified as Naïve art because he was self-taught. Pirosmani lived in Georgia in the Caucasus—then part of the Russian Empire. He was poor for much of his life and had to work other jobs to make ends meet. The Georgian artist preferred to paint everyday life in rural communities, including people and animals, as well as landscapes. Therefore, even though Pirosmani's work is sometimes classified as Primitivist, he did not idealize or stereotype faraway places but rather focused on his own homeland.

Pirosmani opted for painting on oilcloth. His artworks are usually monochromatic and child-like and lack detail. Despite this lack of detail, the paintings are also quite evocative and rooted in the customs of Georgia. Pirosmani reached international recognition posthumously.

Primitivism, Niko Pirosmani primitivist painting, Study Smarter

Niko Pirosmani, A Peasant Woman with Children Going to Fetch Water, 1900s. Wikipedia Commons (U.S. public domain).

Primitivism: Music

The most famous example of the primitivist direction in music in the early 20th century was the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971). Paradoxically, Stravinsky was well educated in classical music and worked within its parameters. He also led a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Apart from Russia, the composer lived in the United States, Switzerland, and France. Stravinsky caused a scandal in 1913 when the audience heard his ballet, The Rite of Spring, in Paris. The theme of this composition is pagan human sacrifice in Russia before Christianity, whereas the sounds are loud and dissonant. For these reasons, Stravinsky’s work was considered primitivist.

Primitivism: Aftermath

The early 20th century saw a number of movements loosely inspired by Primitivism and Naïve art. Fauvism, for example, derived its name from the French word “beasts.” Fauvist artists used bold colors and challenged mainstream representational art. Neo-Primitivism was also a movement in Russia that fused traditional Russian folk arts with various early 20th-century avant-garde movements.

One of the main consequences of Primitivism in the West was the long-lasting assumption about the “primitive” nature of non-Europeans linked to colonial thinking. Both non-Europeans and their traditional arts were reduced to stereotypes. These ideas made it difficult to adequately assess and include indigenous arts outside the West in a unified study of world art history. However, contemporary non-Western artists use their own artistic heritage to evaluate and understand it on its merit.

Primitivism - Key Takeaways

  • Primitivism was a trend in avant-garde art and music in the late 19th-early 20th-centuries. Primitivist artists drew inspiration outside the West. They believed non-Europeans were nobler because they were more "primitive" and closer to nature. Primitivism exhibited a certain nostalgia for the Golden Age of the past and conflated this idea with non-Europeans by reducing them to stereotypes.
  • Primitivist thinking was aligned with European colonialism and conquest. Indigenous art from outside the West was displayed in ethnographic museums and colonial exhibitions. They inspired key artists like Pablo Picasso.
  • The best-known primitivist painters are Paul Gaugin, Henri Rousseau, and Niko Pirosmani.
  • The composer Igor Stravinsky is the best-known example of Primitivism in music for his 1913 pagan-inspired Rite of Spring ballet.

1 Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming, The Visual Arts: A History (fourth edition), NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995, 675.

2 Ibid, 689.

Frequently Asked Questions about Primitivism

Primitivism was a trend in late 19th-early 20th-century European art that subscribed to the colonial idea that non-Europeans were less civilized, closer to nature, and thus worthy of emulation. Primitivist art sometimes looked dream-like and anti-naturalistic.

The problem with Primitivism was that it was linked to European colonialism and conquest and subscribed to negative stereotypes about non-Europeans.

Primitivism was a trend in late 19th-early 20th-century European art that subscribed to the colonial idea that non-Europeans were less civilized, closer to nature, and thus worthy of emulation. Primitivist art sometimes looked dream-like and anti-naturalistic. Primitivism arose after Impressionism and was linked to other movements such as Symbolism.

The best-known artists who subscribed to the Primitivist trend are Paul Gaugin and Henri Rousseau.

Primitivism arose in the late 19th century and ended in the early 20th-century.

Final Primitivism Quiz

Question

What is Primitivism?

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Answer

Primitivism was a late 19th-early 20th-century avant-garde art movement. This movement usually idealized the past and non-European people as being closer to nature. 

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Question

Who were the best-known Primitivist painters?

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Answer

Paul Gaugin and Henri Rousseau

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Question

Which European painter was inspired by African masks in the early 20th century?

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Answer

Pablo Picasso

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Question

Where did Paul Gaugin create his Primitivist paintings?

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Answer

Tahiti

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Question

Which Enlightenment thinker subscribed to the idea of a noble savage?

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Answer

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

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What is another term for Primitivism?

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Answer

Naïve Art

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Why is Primitivism problematic?

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Answer

Primitivism subscribed to Western colonial thinking and negative stereotypes about non-Europeans.

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Which Primitivist artist preferred to paint jungle scenes?

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Answer

Henri Rousseau

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Which Primitivist painter focused on everyday scenes of rural life?

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Answer

Niko Pirosmani

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Question

How did the indigenous arts of Africa, Australia, Oceania, and the Americas become popular in 19th-century Europe?

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Answer

These art objects became popular in 19th-century Europe by being displayed in ethnographic museums and colonial exhibitions.

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